Election 2023: Stephen Dabasinskas, John Svilarich vie for Camas City Council’s at-large seat

Nov. 7 election will decide fate of four Camas City Council seats

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Camas City Council candidates Stephen Dabasinskas (left) and John Svilarich (right) are vying for the Council's at-large position in the Nov. 7, 2023, General and Special Election. (Contributed photos courtesy of Stephen Dabasinskas and John Svilarich)

Camas voters will decide the fate of four Camas City Council races in the Nov. 7 General and Special Election. Of those four races, only three are considered competitive — with Councilwoman Jennifer Senescu running unopposed for her Ward 3, Position 1 seat.

The three competitive races include the Council’s at-large position, which represents constituents citywide. Councilman Don Chaney said earlier this year that he planned to step down from his long-held Council position, meaning there is no incumbent in the at-large race.

Instead, longtime Camas volunteer John Svilarich and Stephen Dabasinskas, a former law enforcement officer turned business executive, are vying for the at-large seat.

Stephen Dabasinskas

During a recent League of Women Voters candidate forum, Camas City Council candidate Stephen Dabasinskas, a former law enforcement officer turned president of a business services company who moved to Camas from San Diego in 2018, said he has always tried to be involved in his community and felt his skill set would benefit the Camas Council. 

“I have a unique background,” Dabasinskas said. “I understand (human resources), financing and problem-solving.”

In his candidate statement, Dabasinskas added that he believes “rising interest rates and inflationary realities make fiscal stewardship the most important new metric of municipal leadership” and said his “financial expertise provides Camas a set of uniquely qualified tools that are desperately needed.”

This week, Dabasinskas talked to The Post-Record about the issues facing the city of Camas and what role he might play if elected to the city council’s at-large position. 

When he moved to Camas in 2018, with his wife, Debbie, and their two youngest sons, Dabasinskas said he was drawn to Camas’ small-town feel, school district and welcoming community. 

“My only regret was not moving here sooner,” Dabasinskas said. 

There were some things Dabasinskas, 58, a youth basketball coach, father of three and grandfather of one appreciated about the city’s leadership. 

“I love all the things the city has done to improve the things we already have,” he said. “I’m an outdoor person and have dogs, so I go for a lot of walks, so I liked the trails, the parks and the downtown stuff they’ve done — trimming trees and fixing the sidewalks.”

A former law enforcement officer who served as vice president of the Orange County Narcotics Officers Association in southern California, and whose eldest son currently works as a firefighter in San Diego, Dabasinskas also appreciated the city’s police and fire departments. 

“The city has done a really good job of keeping those two departments at the forefront,” Dabasinskas said. 

But the Council candidate also saw some areas he believed needed improvement — including a need for more citizen involvement and the need for the city to examine its revenues and priorities its “needs” from its “wants.”
“Citizen engagement is something Camas could improve on greatly,” Dabasinskas said. “Our government is growing so fast and moving forward so quickly … I know that, for citizens, when they bring something up, it has to go through the Council, the mayor, the city staff. I think the city could do a much better job of it.” 

When it comes to bolstering the city’s revenues used to pay for everything from street repairs and library upgrades to emergency medical services and park maintenance, Dabasinskas said he would advocate for adding a grant writer and economic development person to the city’s staff. 

“I would like to hire someone to pursue grants full-time within the city staff,” Dabasinskas said. “That would pay for itself. And, on the other side of the coin, it would free up city staff … none of whom are actually true professional grant writers.” 

Adding a business development person to the City’s staff is another area Dabasinskas would like to explore if elected to the Council. 

“We don’t have a full-time business development position to rally the troops,” he said. Adding that position could help Camas “bring in new business … and retain some of the larger employers that are so important and that we can’t afford to lose.” 

When considering the City’s needs versus wants, Dabasinskas said he would prioritize the City’s infrastructure needs, especially when it comes to water, sewer and public safety. 

“We need to look at every project on the table,” Dabasinskas said. “The City is heading into a cycle of (lower revenues). In the end, you have to run a balanced budget.”

Dabasinskas said one area he would want to see the city save money is with the long-planned Crown Park remodel, which the Camas City Council approved as a master plan by the Council in 2018, and again as a package of options — including an interactive water feature, an inclusive playground, ADA-complaint trails and a restroom — in November 2021, and that recently was awarded a $500,000 recreation grant from the state of Washington. 

Dabasinskas would like to remove elements he views as “luxuries” from the $6.3 million Crown Park remodel plan included in the Council’s approved 2023-24 budget, including the interactive water feature. 

“If we can build the project … and take out some of the larger features, we could improve our park for $1 (million) or $2 million and save the City $4.5 million,” Dabasinskas said.

One area Dabasinskas does align with current Council thinking is on the future of the Camas-Washougal Fire Department, which is currently trying to nail down a new agreement between the two cities that provides the same level of service without overly burdening a revenue-strapped Washougal or placing too great a burden on Camas taxpayers. 

Dabasinskas said he knows Camas residents are “extremely happy with the fire department” and would like to see the two cities reach an agreement soon, but is also open to asking voters to approve a regional fire authority. 

“We need to look out for the citizens of Camas,” Dabasinskas said, adding that a joint agreement for fire and emergency medical services between Camas and Washougal must meet Camasonians’ needs and either maintain or improve the current level of fire protection and EMS  services.

“If that can’t be done, we need to look at a regional fire authority option,” Dabasinskas said. “Camas can’t go it alone.”

Dabasinskas also knows the Council will likely need to ask voters to approve a capital bond to build a new fire station headquarters, but said he believes the City may have “a tough time passing that current bond in today’s economy.” 

If he were on Council when officials decided to go to the public for a new fire station bond, Dabasinskas said he would want to be very transparent about where the bond money would go. 

“I think, taking the failed (2019) pool bond as an example, when you’re asking citizens for money, you have to be 100 percent transparent,” he said. “With the fire (station) bond, if it’s 

$30 million, where exactly is that $30 million going? People need hard facts, hard costs — this is where every single dollar is going.” 

Dabasinskas said he would also like to see the Council revisit the idea of building a public swimming pool in Camas. 

“Everyone has their own opinion of what the cost and vision for this pool might be,” he said.“The community wants a pool, so let’s look at the realities of it, and get it on a Council agenda.”

The Council candidate said he believes the City’s draft Lakes Management Plan, which recommends officials approve in-lake treatments to help clear up toxic algal blooms and work with an extensive network of regional and statewide partners to help clean the 67-square-mile Lacamas Creek watershed — the main source of algae-feeding nutrients in Lacamas and Round lake – is “a good start.” 

“Our lake problem cannot be solved by the City itself,” Dabasinskas said. “It will take (the state’s department of) Ecology and the county … cities north of us and everyone that contributes to the watershed.” 

“There are a lot of grants for environmental cleanups,” he added. “I would love to see us pursue these grants as much as possible.” 

Dabasinskas also said he would like to see city officials concentrate on Camas’ historical downtown area. 

“Downtown is the focal point of our city and we have to keep improving it,” he said. “The streets are in disrepair and  the electrical grid (is in need of improvement), so let’s stay focused on that and make downtown Camas a better version of itself.” 

When he is not working or campaigning, Dabasinskas said he loves to be outdoors. 

“I love going out in the Gorge. And I’ve probably hiked every trail there is around Lacamas Lake several times over,” he said. “I enjoy running marathons and coaching basketball … and I’m an avid sports fan, attending and watching basketball, football, baseball and running events.”
Dabasinskas, who is opening a wine bar led by his wife, Deborah Dabasinskas, in downtown Camas, said he also is a “craft beer geek.”
“I was super excited when Grains of Wrath opened,” he said. “I love to see that success in our community.” 

John Svilarich

Longtime Camas resident John Svilarich is no stranger to issues impacting his neighbors and fellow Camasonians. 

In fact, Svilarich, 66, has spent the past 20 years volunteering for boards, commissions and associations that help tackle the issues most important to Camas residents. Svilarich is the current president of his Deer Creek Homeowners Association and the former chairman of the Camas School Board’s Citizens Advisory Committee. He also has sat on the North Shore Citizen Advisory Committee, the Port of Camas-Washougal’s Waterfront Advisory Committee, and volunteered with local Friends of Trees, Rotary and Kiwanis groups. 

In his professional life, Svilarich is a business leader, with a background in business development, distribution and ecommerce. 

And if there is one thing Svilarich has learned through his professional and volunteer work, it is that no one person can change the direction of a community. 

“I don’t have a magic wand to easily solve our problems,” Svilarich stated in his candidate statement. “However, if elected, I will act.”

Svilarich knows the city of Camas is facing a wealth of infrastructure, environmental and growth-related issues. And he said he is tired of watching many Camas officials keep “kicking the can down the road” when it comes to things like repairing streets, replacing unsafe buildings and solving the issue of an unsustainable, decade-long merger between the Camas and Washougal fire departments.  

Svilarich said he knows the current city council has “people with good intent, people who are finding their way and still learning,” but that he would like to help the Council “become more action-oriented and decisive.” 

“We have two fire stations that don’t meet earthquake codes. A city hall that is 60 years old and has nowhere to meet with the public. And we have streets we’ve decided not to maintain,” Svilarich recently told The Post-Record. 

“In Camas, the city council seems to admire problems instead of solving them,” Svilarich stated. “We’ve waited too long to solve our many challenges. The cost of delay is bigger problems with larger bills to pay.” 

Well aware of the City’s financial constraints and reliance on property, sales and, temporarily, utility taxes to supply the general fund that pays for Camas’ streets, parks, library, police and fire departments, Svilarich said he would like to see Camas focus on the type of economic development that could add property and sales taxes to the City’s coffers. 

“If we can attract more business, we will have (more revenues). Unfortunately, about 20 years ago, Camas made the decision to not take part of the 192nd corridor, which is now a huge retail zone that generates sales taxes,” Svilarich said. “We need to figure out a way to attract businesses, and that takes work. I think the City and the Council need to come up with a plan to pursue economic development.”
Svilarich also believes utility taxes need to be part of the City’s revenue conversation. 

“It is another possible revenue source, but it affects different households in different ways,” Svilarich said. “We need to really have a discussion about not having enough revenue to take care of our infrastructure. … Utility taxes definitely need to be part of that conversation.” 

Svilarich, the father of two sons in their 30s, also would like to see city officials make more of an effort to engage Camas constituents, including younger Camas residents. 

“The last couple of years, they have been stronger efforts to do that,” Svilarich said. “They have seemed more open to taking input and meeting with people, but I don’t think we’ve coordinated our efforts very well. The City doesn’t push out information. It makes you pull it out.”
As active as he has been in his community, Svilarich said there are times when even he is caught off guard by something happening at the city level. 

“Stuff happens all the time that I didn’t know about,” he said, adding that he believes city officials “need to get out more, have town halls or private meetings … and be better about informing citizens. … When we only have one out of every three people voting in an (off-year) election, there’s not a ton of engagement happening.” 

When he thinks about the major issues impacting Camas right now, Svilarich points to the City’s many capital needs. 

“Infrastructure is probably the number-one issue in Camas,” Svilarich said during a recent League of Women Voters candidate forum held at the Vancouver Community Library. “We have two fire stations that don’t meet safety codes and need to be replaced. We decided to delay maintenance of our roads for two years, and now they’re deteriorating. We have less-than-ideal  working conditions for city staff. Our tech systems are behind.”

“If I’m on Council, I will help prioritize (these needs) and be definitive in our decisions, instead of saying, ‘Let’s study it some more.’ Every time we wait, it costs us more money down the road,” he added. 

Sivilarich, who believes the city of Camas must change its form of government to the more common council-manager form seen in other Clark County cities, including Vancouver and Washougal, said the city is suffering from years of instability. 

“The lack of stability has been a challenge,” Svilarich said. “We’ve had five mayors, three city administrators and a lot of key positions to figure out (in the past five years). … I think we need to talk about changing our form of government.” 

The Council candidate has received endorsements from several current and former Camas officials and community leaders have endorsed Svilarich for the Council’s at-large position, including former Camas Mayor Nan Henriksen; Camas School Board President Corey McHenry and Camas School Board member Erika Cox; former Camas City Councilwoman and current co-president of the West Columbia Gorge Humane Society Deanna Rusch; and current Camas City Councilwoman Marilyn Boerke.  

When he’s not campaigning or working, Svilarich, the father of two sons in their 30s, said he enjoys exploring the outdoors with his dog — a 7-year-old lab named “Frankie the Girl” — as well as cooking, grilling and barbecuing.

And when it comes to running for city council, Svilarich, who came in third in a field of four candidates during the Aug. 2, 2021, primary election for the Council’s Ward 3, Position 2 seat currently held by Councilwoman Leslie Lewallen, the veteran volunteer said he has no agenda and isn’t beholden to any special interests. 

“I could live just about anywhere, and I choose to live here. I like Camas,” Svilarich said. “I have no agenda other than for Camas to be in a good place and do good things.”